GAZA (Reuters) - New leisure projects and restaurants have been springing up in the Gaza Strip, some partially funded by Hamas Islamists ruling a territory long seen as a symbol of Palestinian hardship.
The construction boom in recreational facilities has prompted some Palestinians in the enclave to complain that Hamas should have channeled such investment into rebuilding homes and infrastructure destroyed in conflict with Israel.
Some 800 visitors a day flock to Al-Bustan, a resort built by a Hamas-linked charity, to enjoy its swimming pools, restaurants and cafes.
In keeping with strict Muslim tradition, women are veiled and non-Islamic songs are not on the playlist of music blaring from loudspeakers.
“The atmosphere is Islamic. It’s a place where you feel relaxed,” said Umm Gaafar, wearing head-to-toe black garb and a veil.
It’s a different scene at Crazy Water Park.
Secular music echoes across its three swimming pools and men and women smoke water pipes around tables placed under umbrellas made of palm branches.
With Gaza unemployment estimated by the United Nations at more than 40 percent, and by local economists at 60 percent, most of the crowd at Crazy Water are relatively well-paid professionals and employees of foreign aid organizations.
Bissan City, a former garbage dump on land owned by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, has been turned into a 46-acre (19 hectare) zoo, a large entertainment park for children and gardens.
Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nono said it supported private investment in the territory and had a role in renovating Bissan City.
But he declined to confirm any official ties to other new leisure facilities built by local entrepreneurs in the enclave of 1.5 million people.
Hamas has not disclosed the scope of its investment in numerous projects in the Gaza Strip and the government in the territory has not released a budget. Hamas receives money from some Islamic and Arab allies, especially Qatar and Iran.
“Living under siege does not mean that people do not think of ways to alleviate the suffering and to have some entertainment,” Nono said, referring to a four-year-old Israeli-led blockade.
But Mohammed Othman, enjoying a day out at Crazy Water, said the money used to construct the facility — which its owners said cost $2 million to build — was needed elsewhere.
“If the money put into Crazy Water had been used to construct 10 buildings, 100 families could have been housed by now,” Othman said, referring to some of the damage caused by the December 2008-January 2009 war between Israel and Hamas.
Nono said the government had helped to repair minor damage in hundreds of homes but more extensive reconstruction required donor countries to release billions of dollars of aid frozen after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Israel also places restrictions on the import of construction material, saying it has to keep materials that can be used for weapons out of Hamas’s hands.
Despite the general embargo, loosened after an international outcry over Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt have kept the territory supplied with a wide variety of goods.
The underground network also has enriched tunnel operators and importers.
At a recently inaugurated Gaza shopping mall, the enclave’s first such project, stores are filled with clothing, shoes and other consumer goods. Supermarket shelves in the mall are packed with Egyptian and Israeli merchandise.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton